by Con Good
If 76 years seems like a long-overdue retirement age, don't tell it to the Jan Garber Orchestra.
That's saying a lot. And it's good news to dancers throughout the nation. Reason: good music! It's been that way since 1918, when the diminutive, effervescent Mr. Garber - fresh from Philadelphia's Combs Conservatory Of Music and World War I Army service - launched a band leading career that spanned more than six decades.
Jan Garber began his extended career on America's bandstands as a modest quartet (including his own violin) following World War I. It later emerged as a full-fledged 'hot band' in the 1920s; a 'sweet' band in the early 1930s through the early 1940s; a 'swing' band during World War II; and back to the 'sweet' style permanently in late 1945.
Jan's greatest popularity surfaced in early 1933, shortly after he took over leadership of the 'Little Freddie Large Orchestra' from Canada. With Freddie's unique lead alto saxophone captivating radio listeners from Cincinnati to Catalina Island, the Garber Band - with a sound like Lombardo but lots peppier - became an overnight sensation at Chicago's famed Trianon Ballroom. A year later, it was solidly entrenched among the most popular dance groups in the entire country.
Prominent in this emergence were the imaginative musical arrangements of pianist Doug Roe; the singing of Nebraska native Lee Bennett; and a series of comic skits, special shows and mini-concerts during each dance.
The original members of the 'Little Freddie Large Orchestra' are all gone now. But they were greatly surprised, along with most of the nation, when Jan - for reasons never entirely clear but probably linked to his own restless nature and the fast-paced blare of the times - switched styles completely and launched a swinging big band during World War II. The experiment proved a musical success but a financial disaster. Jan mercifully cut his losses, and ended the suffering of his countless 1930s followers, by returning to his familiar 'sweet' style of music in late 1945.
Freddie Large returned with him, bringing along Tony Briglia, a fellow Canadian and longtime drummer with the famed Casa Loma Orchestra. Also aiding the cause considerably were trumpeter Bill Kleeb and trombonist/arranger Frank Bettencourt. They had both joined Jan in late 1942, with Frank returning after military service to update and take charge of virtually all the band's musical library in addition to his trombone and part-time piano chores. Kleeb's classic trumpet work became a Garber trademark for the better part of a quarter-century.
Memo Bernabei and prewar sideman Al Powers, together with Jo Jo Huffman, rounded out the new reed-section quartet. Jack Barrow, who had also been on the band during the latter 1930s, returned with Bettencourt on trombone, with Ernie Mathias and Vince DiBari joining Kleeb in the expanded trumpet section. Frank McCauley on string bass and pianist Jack Motch, who both helped with arranging, rounded out Jan's new postwar group.
During these years, Jan Garber was to become increasingly well known as 'The Idol of The Airlanes.' This was an informal title bestowed by announcer Pierre Andre during one of the band's countless broadcasts on Chicago's WGN Radio.
In addition to superior musicians, Jan was blessed with a series of excellent vocalists from the mid-1940s onward. Tommy Traynor and Tim Reardon were early names in the postwar Garber Band, together with Alan Copeland and his 'TwinTones' singing group. Also emerging from the late 1940s were Bob Grabeau; Roy Cordell (called "the best of them all" by Jan's widow, Dorothy); Larry Dean; Julio Maro; and Marv Nielsen.
Prominent among Jan's postwar female vocalists were Thelma Gracen, Julie Vernon and Janis Garber-who was billed for a time as 'Kitty Thomas.'
Dubbed 'The Mighty Little Maestro Of Modern Melody' during his record-breaking engagements at the Trianon, it was there - during those early 1930s - that Jan's unmatched rapport with dancers and widely-acknowledged mastery of dance tempos began. Over the years, he's been recognized as a pioneer in creating the 'one-night-stand' concept among dance orchestras.
Jan Garber probably took his orchestra to more places - and played for more dancers - during his 53 years on the bandstand than any other leader. His popularity extended to both coasts and all points in between. Enthusiastic audiences flocked to hear Jan at such famous hotel locations as the Ambassador's Cocoanut Grove and the Biltmore Bowl in Los Angeles; the Schroeder (now known as the Marc Plaza) in Milwaukee; the Café Rouge of the Statler and the Roosevelt Grill in New York City; and the Blue Room of the Roosevelt in New Orleans. He was also a major attraction at the Hollywood Palladium.
The crowds were perhaps less sophisticated in the hinterlands. But when folks across the country gathered from miles around in locations like the Gopher Inn at Libby (Montana) and Wahoo (Nebraska), they formed the foundation to Jan's grassroots greatness.
The Garber Band never allowed distance, weather or inconvenience to hinder its permanent rendezvous with America's dancing public. It played in Southern tobacco warehouses and cotton mills in the 1920s; on the vaudeville theater circuit for many years; and added to its basic ballroom exposure via recordings (on nearly a dozen labels); radio; movies; and television.
In the 1950s, Garber music became a permanent fixture at a series of gala horse shows in the South and Southwest. Jan's final-year engagements in the Lady Luck Lounge of the Desert Inn made his band one of the most popular attractions in the emerging Las Vegas of the 1960s.
That popularity continues today. It was first kept alive by Jan's daughter Janis, who sang with the band for many years and later took it on the road in the early 1970s following her dad's retirement. The Garber Orchestra has remained active ever since, largely under the direction of now-deceased bandleaders Dick Wickman and Ron Harvey.
The official record says that Jan Garber passed away on October 5, 1977, just short of his 83rd birthday. But you don't have to believe it if you don't want to. Music of the beloved 'Idol Of The Airlanes' remains alive and well - which would please Jan very much indeed.